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Rob Gressis

Hi Moti,

I think what you're doing is very important. I need to start doing it too. I think that philosophy is suffering from an identity crisis. I'm not saying that philosophy doesn't know what it is (I suppose it's never quite known what it is), but rather that most people don't know what philosophy is. I think when most employers (aside from philosophy departments, of course) hear, "I majored in philosophy", they think something like: "this kid probably smokes a lot of pot, tries to think 'profound' thoughts, and thinks really highly of him/herself. No thank you." On the other hand, if they thought, "this kid is someone who is good at reading complex material, figuring out how to present its most important points, and coming up with plausible objections to the arguments contained therein", then they would probably conclude, "yes, please!"

This will never happen, but if we renamed departments of philosophy "departments of critical thinking", I bet our undergraduates would do a lot better right out of the gate.

All that said, your anonymous survey made me think of a question, one I was hoping to get cocooners' help with. Before I can ask it, though, I need to add a little background.

Last semester, I took an art class, and in the first week of class, the professor had us draw self-portraits. For the last week of class, too, the professor had us draw self-portraits again. Then, she had us show the class our two self-portraits.

The effect was dramatic: almost all of us had improved, in some cases quite remarkably. I think being able to literally see the progress you've made is helpful for buying in to a class. Similarly, I think that if people could compare a philosophical work they did at the beginning of the semester to a work on the same topic at the end of the semester, they would buy in more to philosophy than they do now.

But--and here's my question--what kind of assignment would that be? Thoughts?

Marcus Arvan

Moti: I try to do what you do as well. First, I try to make it as clear as I can to students why the rigorous reading, writing, speaking, and thinking skills they learn in philosophy will be valuable in just about any occupation. Second, I always try to bring philosophy as down to earth as I can, getting them to see how thinking philosophically -- about how to live, about religion, whatever -- is important. Third, I try to "sell" our discipline this way. Philosophy majors *do* get some of the highest scores on the LSAT, GRE, etc., not to mention very good salaries.

As an aside, I was visiting my parents this week and my father -- who has had a very long high-level career in the fashion industry -- mentioned just how surprisingly in demand philosophers are (even those with graduate degrees). He told me there is a very strong movement in his industry, and others he is involved with, toward people who can think originally and influence *philosophy* of the company. I was a bit skeptical, but he is a well-connected and well-traveled man, and he had no reason to exaggerate. Anyway, his claims fit very well with the article you linked to.

Rob: I try two things. First, I have students fill out a survey of their views (about ethics, political philosophy, whatever) heading into my courses, on the very first day. Then I hand them back at the conclusion of the course and ask them to reflect on how much their views have shifted. Usually, the shifts are quite significant, and students can see themselves walking away having learned something. Second, although I don't ask them to compare their early pieces of work with their later ones, I have so many assignments in my classes -- as well as opportunities for paper rewrites -- that it is often *obvious* to me (and, I assume, my students) how much their work has improved. Indeed, I've often gotten remarks to this effect in my student evals (remarks to the effect that they've seen how far they've come).

I don't suppose these are the only ways to get students to see how much they've learned, but I've found that they seem to work pretty well.

Michel X.

Rob: Perhaps (and this is purely from the top of my head) you could start the semester off with a warm-up writing assignment: you post a tricky question (perhaps one that easily lens itself to fallacious reasoning) on the board/overhead/screen/whatever (one you don't explicitly address in class but which is related to the class's subject matter would probably be best) and ask them to give it a quick critical analysis/reflection. You collect their answers, and ask them to do the same (with the same question) at or near the end of the semester, and give them back their original answers. You could even attach bonus points as an incentive for completing the exercise.

If you *really* wanted to get them reflecting, you could include a third phase in which they have to reflect on the difference (or lack thereof) between their two responses.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Rob, I think Marcus and Michel both have good ideas for the kind of assignment you are looking for. Another idea is this: Have students construct arguments in premise-conclusion format. This could be done as a prelude to a longer essay or as a short writing exercise. In both cases, such an assignments will force students to think carefully about not only their thesis and the evidence for it but also the sort of support the evidence is supposed to provide for the thesis. Toward the end of the semester, you could have them compare their earlier attempts at constructing arguments with their later attempts. I think this is easier to do than comparing longer essays and it makes any improvements apparent to students.

Rob Gressis

Thanks for the suggestions, Moti, Marcus, and Michel. Moti, your suggestion raises a question for me: how good do your students get at formulating arguments in premise-conclusion form after one semester of philosophy? I ask this because I fear that if I used your assignment, I wouldn't see much progress, but perhaps your students make a lot of headway on this?

Moti Mizrahi

I should say that a spend a lot of time each semester going over the basics of logic, including fallacies and the like. So, by the end of a semester, my students can formulate deductive and inductive arguments in premise-conclusion form. But I can see why some might be reluctant to spend a lot of time on logic and argumentation.

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